21 January 2009

Bridge criticism 4: Teaching engineers to criticise

In the last post on this topic, I covered Alan Holgate's ideas for a practice of structural engineering criticism. Holgate's book The Art in Structural Design was aimed largely at engineering students, to give them a better idea of the "softer" aspects of engineering which are often largely absent from an undergraduate education.

Architecture students are often given a very harsh introduction to the idea that their designs are subject to criticism, with the institution of the architectural "crit" whereby their designs are reviewed by their tutors in front of the class. In theory, this is to provide constructive criticism of flaws in design, and to prepare them for the real world where clients will often have very strong views on the merits of designs they are paying for. In practice, it's seen by many students as nothing but an ordeal, a trial by fire (see cartoon).

Engineering students generally experience nothing of this sort. In a future post, I intend to discuss an excellent example where structural engineering students are being explicitly introduced to the value of criticism. For now, however, I'd like to cover some proposals that Bill Addis made back in 1996.

In his paper "Structural criticism and the aesthetics of structures" (IABSE 15th Congress, available online), Addis (pictured, right) noted the absence of critical evaluation of design from undergraduate education:

"In the light of ... the recent fashion for clients to appoint architects to lead bridge design teams, it is perhap time to consider what engineers might do to establish their territory more firmly".
Addis notes that students of the humanities are immersed in criticism of the works that they study, and that this helps them develop:
  • a critical vocabulary

  • the ability to discriminate aesthetically

  • willingness to express their self
Addis's view of how limited most structural engineering students are with these facilities is as true now as it was in 1996:

"The engineer's weakness in these areas should scarcely be surprising, given the content of most engineering courses, the typical educational background of many engineering students, their poor ability to communicate effectively and with confidence, and the very few opportunities they are given to develop such skills by talking eloquently about structures and design. The activity of structural criticism can provide such opportunities."
Addis doesn't suggest that student engineers should be subjected to anything like the crit. Instead, he suggests they could be asked to take two existing structures, describing them visually, structurally, environmentally; discuss their feelings about the structures; and write a comparative evaluation.

He offers several criteria students can use to carry out their evaluation. Examples include:
  • skill and clarity with which structural actions are expressed

  • elegance or simplicity

  • expression of solidity or delicacy

  • expression in geometry of the imposed loads and internal forces

  • interaction between load-bearing and non-load-bearing aspects
My own experience in working with universities is that few have taken these ideas on board. There is so much technology and analysis in the curriculum that there is little time to cover the philosophy of design other than to hope that it somehow emerges magically from design exercises. Again in my experience, it doesn't - students are so preoccupied with the details of their projects that they have little opportunity to sit back and reflect on the wider lessons from the design process.

It's also clearly the case that few academics teaching structural engineering have substantial experience in a design office any more. Their backgrounds predispose them to teaching topics that can be simply measured and evaluated, mathematical topics, and to shy away from having to judge subjective views on aesthetics or design quality.

New graduates continue to arrive in the workplace with little or no knowledge of engineering history, of the great designers, of how to design (rather than analyse), and of how they might take responsibility for engineering in any way other than as a responsive technician (usually the architect's servant).

Addis concludes:

"to be a good structural engineer it is essential to be able to discriminate between good and bad examples of structural engineering. In the context of structural engineering, any concern with aesthetics should be addressing the question as to what constitutes good and bad design and what it is to be a good structural engineer."
Fortunately, the outlook isn't entirely bleak. In a later post, I'll cover examples of how structural engineering criticism is now being cultivated at university, something that many others would benefit from taking on board. And how does all this relate to bridges? Well, I'll get back to that too, although perhaps not immediately!

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